SCOTUS: Trump Not Above Law, Must Release Taxes
A mixed ruling: New York wins, Congress loses--but no release before the election.
Breaking from the LA Times: “Supreme Court deals Trump a defeat, upholds demands for his tax returns“
The Supreme Court dealt President Trump a major defeat Thursday by rejecting his claims of presidential immunity and upholding subpoenas from New York prosecutors seeking his tax returns and financial records.
In one of the most anticipated rulings on presidential privilege in years, the justices by a 7-2 vote ruled the nation’s chief executive is not above the law and must comply with legitimate demands from a grand jury in New York that was investigating Trump’s alleged hush money payments to two women who claimed to have had sex with him.
Trump had sued to block the subpoenas and claimed that as president he had an “absolute immunity” from demands for personal or confidential information.
The election-year dispute had an obvious political significance, but it was also the rare separation of powers case in which the powers of the president, Congress and the judicial system were all at issue.
In past rulings on similar high-profile cases, the court had unanimously ruled that the president is not above the law, forcing President Nixon to hand over the Watergate tapes and President Clinton to be deposed in the Paula Jones harassment lawsuit.
Unlike other presidents since the Watergate era of the 1970s, Trump refused to disclose his tax returns and has kept secret the details of his business dealings. Investigators were particularly interested in whether Trump and his businesses were heavily indebted to foreign banks.
I haven’t had time to read the decision and likely won’t for a couple of hours. This stub will give folks a place to discuss the case. I may weigh in with further thoughts later.
I gather that the opinion addressed obvious potential for abuse by political enemies and noted that a President would still have the protections available to any other citizen.
I also gather that the release won’t be immediate, as the case was remanded to the 2nd Circuit.
UPDATE (1034): Okay, I can’t concentrate on the writing I actually need to get done, anyway. WaPo’s Robert Barnes (“Supreme Court says Manhattan prosecutor may see Trump’s personal financial records“):
The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a New York prosecutor is entitled to see President Trump’s private and business financial records, ending an intense legal battle waged by the president to keep them secret.
The court said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. had the authority to subpoena the records from Trump’s private accounting firm. Trump had claimed an immunity from criminal investigations while in office.
The court will rule later Thursday on subpoenas issues by congressional committees for a broader range of Trump’s financial records.
Barnes, too, is updating as he goes.
NYT’s Adam Liptak (“Supreme Court Rules Trump Cannot Block Release of Financial Records“):
The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that President Trump can for now block the release of his financial records to Congress but that prosecutors in New York may see them, a stunning defeat for Mr. Trump but a decision that probably means the records will be shielded from public scrutiny until after the election, perhaps indefinitely.
The vote in both cases was 7 to 2.
That is most unsatisfying.
UPDATE (1101): Skimming the case syllabus itself:
Article II and the Supremacy Clause do not categorically preclude,
or require a heightened standard for, the issuance of a state criminal
subpoena to a sitting President.
(a) In 1807, John Marshall, presiding as Circuit Justice for Virginia
over the treason trial of Aaron Burr, granted Burr’s motion for a subpoena duces tecum directed at President Jefferson. In rejecting the
prosecution’s argument that a President was not subject to such a subpoena, Marshall held that a President does not “stand exempt” from
the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee that the accused have compulsory
process for obtaining witnesses for their defense.
This history all involved federal criminal proceedings. Here, the
President claims that the Supremacy Clause gives a sitting President
absolute immunity from state criminal subpoenas because compliance
with such subpoenas would categorically impair the performance of his
Article II functions.
The President’s unique duties as head of the Executive Branch
come with protections that safeguard his ability to perform his vital
functions. The Constitution also guarantees “the entire independence
of the General Government from any control by the respective States.”
[T}he Court expressly rejected immunity based on distraction alone 15 years later in Clinton v. Jones, when President Clinton sought absolute immunity from civil liability for private acts. As the Court explained, Fitzgerald’s “dominant concern” was not mere distraction but the distortion of the Executive’s “decisionmaking process.”
[T]he President argues that subjecting Presidents to state
criminal subpoenas will make them “easily identifiable target[s]” for
harassment. Fitzgerald, 457 U. S., at 753. The Court rejected a nearly
identical argument in Clinton, concluding that the risk posed by harassing civil litigation was not “serious” because federal courts have the tools to deter and dismiss vexatious lawsuits.
Rejecting a heightened need standard does not leave Presidents
without recourse. A President may avail himself of the same protections available to every other citizen, including the right to challenge
the subpoena on any grounds permitted by state law, which usually
include bad faith and undue burden or breadth.
It’s noteworthy that only Thomas and Alito dissented, meaning both Justices appointed by Trump joined the majority.
The closing argument is powerful:
Two hundred years ago, a great jurist of our Court established that no citizen, not even the President, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding. We reaffirm that principle today and hold that the President is neither absolutely immune from state criminal subpoenas seeking his
private papers nor entitled to a heightened standard of
need. The “guard furnished to this high officer” lies where
it always has—in “the conduct of a court” applying established legal and constitutional principles to individual subpoenas in a manner that preserves both the independence of the Executive and the integrity of the criminal justice system.
As to the remand:
The arguments presented here and in the Court of Appeals were limited to absolute immunity and heightened need. The Court of Appeals, however, has directed that the case be returned to the District Court, where the President may raise further arguments as appropriate.
Offhand, while unsatisfying because the matter doesn’t end here, the reasoning and outcome seem quite reasonable.